By David Morse

Even before the Cessna touched down in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, I knew that we were on the front lines of what may someday be a huge war; that we were witnessing the opening skirmish in a series of resource wars in which countries like Sudan and Nigeria now figure prominently, but which may spread to most of Africa. Not only is this continent rich in mineral wealth; but the inhabitants of a number of its countries can still be driven from their land — raped and killed — with impunity. Today’s resource-driven conflicts are but an extension of the slave trade as well as the ivory, gold, rubber, and diamond trades that have fed on Africa, undermining and corrupting its people’s attempts at governance.

Oil was the precipitating cause of the 21-year-long civil war in Sudan. The South had the oil; the North was the center of power. When the North first moved to seize the southern oilfields in the mid-1980s, a rebellion began — and, immediately after that, came the attacks on southern villages that caused our “Lost Boys” to flee for their lives. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in January of 2005, was supposed to heal the rupture between North and South and divide the oil equitably.

In neighboring Darfur, the more immediate issue is water: water for grazing versus water for farming, the competition between herders and farmers exacerbated terribly by drought, global warming, and encroaching desert. Some of the poorest, most disenfranchised Arabs had no place to graze their herds, so they were easily recruited into the militias known as the Janjaweed, along with common criminals, and given license to steal, rape, and kill.

Oil and water don’t usually mix. In this case they do. Neither Darfur, nor South Sudan can be understood in isolation. They are part of the same marginalized hinterland that is struggling with the central government in the North for access to resources.

Actions in the past few days have dramatized their connectedness. One of the Darfur rebel factions threatened to withdraw from peace negotiations. Why? Because of Khartoum’s failure to honor the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in South Sudan. And while water triggered the conflict in Darfur, oil continues to fuel it. Oil pays for Khartoum’s increasingly sophisticated arms purchases from Russia. Oil buys China’s support at the UN Security Council, so that a culture of impunity can go largely unchecked. Oil buys the quiescence of the good citizens of Khartoum, who pretend not to know what is going on 500 miles away. Rumors abound that Darfur itself may contain oil reserves beyond those located in its southeast corner — as well as valuable deposits of uranium and gold.

I had riches of my own. Traveling with Gabriel Bol Deng and two other “Lost Boys” through South Sudan offered filmmaker Jen Marlowe and me a privileged glimpse into the heart of Dinka society — its elaborate handshakes, its female healers and dancers, its songs and genealogies. Marlowe captured much of it for the documentary film she is now editing and trying to fund. Even the painful moments — the stark poverty, the belly hunger — were part of our journalistic witness; an opportunity to assess the strength of a tenuous peace in a region that has been almost constantly at war for the better part of a century. It was also, we knew, a window that could slam shut at almost any moment.


David Morse is an independent journalist and human rights activist whose articles and essays have appeared in Dissent, Esquire, Friends Journal, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, Salon, and elsewhere. His novel, The Iron Bridge (Harcourt Brace, 1998), predicted a series of petroleum wars in the first two decades of the 21st century. He traveled to South Sudan most recently with support from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and wrote this article during a residency at Blue Mountain Center. Morse may be reached at his website:

Copyright 2007 David Morse

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